Review: The Red Lily Crown

Title: The Red Lily Crown
Author: Elizabeth Loupas
Format: Paperback
Notes: I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway, but was not otherwise compensated for my review.

The Plot: Chiara Nerini, the poor, orphaned daughter of a bookseller and alchemist, decides to sell her father’s equipment to Francesco de Medici, the son of the Grand Duke, an alchemist in his own right. Instead, she is kidnapped by Francesco and his assistant (an enigmatic Englishman named Ruanno) and brought into the Medici household in order to assist Francesco in his attempt to create a philosopher’s stone. Over the next several years, Chiara is drawn into the plots and conspiracies of the Medici court and forms a connection with Ruanno.

The Score: 4/5

The Summation: Loupas weaves an intricate tangle of magic, murder, and dozens of complicated relationships and plucks Chiara at the center of it all. As an outsider to the court, Chiara is an excellent introduction to the backstabbing clan of Medicis, but her intelligence and her will to succeed are drawn well enough that her sudden jump from orphan on the edge of starvation to lady of the courts doesn’t feel forced. Loupas’ greatest strength is in drawing the different relationships that Chiara develops with different members of the family and their servants, as well as in developing Chiara as a character over a decade’s worth of narrative. The romance between Chiara and Ruanno is sweet but not particularly groundbreaking, although some of their more tender scenes were highlights of the novel for me. Loupas’ Medicis brim with plots, and the suspense increases not only with every murder, but with every vicious insult thrown about by ladies of the court. .

The Meh (in particular):

The first forty or so pages, while not entirely uninteresting, do lag a bit, although things pick up soon.

One tidbit that jarred me out of the novel was the failure to mention a character’s disability/physical deformity until a fair bit after the character was introduced, despite the fact that this physical trait would later be part of an important plot point.

Towards the end of the novel there is a sudden timeskip. Although Loupas had previously skipped through several months in between chapters, this timeskip is significantly longer and dealt with in a few pages. I thought that, among other things (including Chiara and Ruanno’s romance through the timeskip), the final confrontation between Chiara and an antagonist at the end seemed a bit implausible, given several things that happened during the timeskip, and I think the book might have worked a bit better if Loupas had found a way to end the novel earlier.

The Good (in particular):

Not only is Chiara a very sympathetic character, Loupas draws her character skillfully through the novel. Chiara’s development from teenaged girl to grown woman rings true every step of the way, and at the end of the novel she does not walk away unscathed or unchanged by her time at the court.

In fact, Loupas is really good at writing round characters, even minor ones like Donna Jimena and Nonna. None of the characters fall flat: even the most unlikable antagonists have moments of quiet dignity or vulnerability, and none of the protagonists are perfect, making human mistakes and occasionally sinking to pettiness or even murder.

Though it’s not a suspense novel, there is a tension that runs throughout the story. Chiara leads an often-perilous life among the Medicis, and Loupas sticks fairly well to history, letting you get to know some fairly major characters before quite suddenly snuffing them out. Chiara herself goes through some hard, hard trials and tribulations courtesy of plotting and power-grabbing antagonists before the end, and there are many anxious moments along the way.

Also, the descriptions in this book are pretty great. You can practically see and hear (and, rather unfortunately, smell) 16th-century Italy, and while some places are more fully detailed than others (compare Francesco’s laboratory to the nunnery), there is always a sense of place that keeps you firmly grounded in Chiara’s world.

The Verdict: Overall, The Red Lily Crown is a well-written, entertaining read which I would recommend to anyone interested in history and well-rounded female protagonists.

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